By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
So much for a home court advantage. According to the schedule, it was supposed to be a home game for the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team.
Judging by the crowd, it wasn't.
Despite a partisan crowd cheering against them in their own gym, the Lights persevered over a pesky and game Haskell Indian Nation University squad with a 61-55 win at a near capacity-filled MSU-Northern gym Wednesday night.
"It didn't feel like a home game," laughed Northern head coach Shawn Huse. "But that's what basketball is all about - playing exciting games in a packed house. Yes, you'd rather have the crowd cheering for you, still it's always better playing in front of a bunch of fans instead of none."
The Haskell-friendly crowd was largely made up of a huge Rocky Boy and Box Elder contingent that made the short trip to Havre to cheer on former Rocky Boy standout Jazz Parker, who is a starting forward for Haskell.
Close to 1,200 people could be heard cheering for the Fighting Indians at times and even Parker was a bit amazed at the turnout.
"I was surprised by how many people were there to support us," Parker said. "I was a little nervous at first."
Unfortunately, the Lights spoiled the hopes of all those people, finally putting away Haskell late in the game.
Reid Stovall's layup off a Cory Brothers lob pass with 1:10 remaining put Northern up 57-51. The Lights then iced away the game at the free-throw line sinking four of six foul shots.
Haskell tried to desperately for one last gasp, but could never get any closer than five points in the final minute.
After coming off a two-week break from competition, the game provided a major test for a Lights team on the verge of the Frontier Conference season.
"That was a tough, tough game for us," Huse said. "Haskell played hard basketball all game and never gave up. It was huge for us to play a close game like that. Gaining that experience is key. We had a lot of young players on the floor down the stretch and it will only make them better."
Northern hadn't played a game that close since Nov. 15 in a 79-67 loss to Minot State University. Since that game, the Lights' wins have been by more than 20 points and their lone loss was a lopsided decision to Montana State.
But with conference season looming, a stern test was just what Huse and his team were looking for.
"This was perfect for us coming off the break," Huse said. "We need to start playing like it's the conference season. This game gave us that opportunity."
Things didn't start out perfect for Huse and his team.
Haskell's full-court pressure bothered the Lights early on as Northern committed turnovers on its first four possession and didn't even attempt a shot until almost two minutes in the game.
However, Haskell couldn't capitalize, only getting four points off the miscues. Marcus Wilson broke Northern's scoreless drought with a putback at the 17:55 mark.
"We didn't start off too great," Huse said. "It's tough to prepare for their pressure because you can't really simulate it in practice. But it is the type of pressure we are going to see in conference. Once we got used to their speed, we settled down and were able to do some things."
Those things included getting the ball into Wilson early and often. The junior center responded, scoring the Lights' first six points and 13 of his game-high 15 points in the first half.
"Coach told us we'd be able bang it inside," Wilson said. "I just tried to be aggressive when I got the ball."
Even with Wilson's play early, Northern still trailed 12-6 after a Parker three-pointer.
The Lights rallied as Cody Gillespie converted a three-point play following a nifty pass from Jordan Matthews, Antonio Jordan scored off a Brothers' steal while Brothers gave Northern its first lead at 13-12 on a fastbreak layup.
Haskell answered immediately with a score from Justin Pendleton inside and a free-throw Lati Hill to go up 15-13. But it was the last the lead the Indians would have.
Matthews banged home a 17-foot jumper and Wilson added a free throw to put Northern up for good 16-15.
Haskell tied the game at 25 late in the first half on Brandon Yellowbird-Stevens bucket, but Northern made a late push as Matthews sank a three-pointer and then found Gillespie inside for three-point play. Wilson added a score inside to put the Light up 34-25 at halftime.
That late burst would prove key in the second half because Northern came out unusually flat following half time. The Lights couldn't buy a basket early on, going scoreless for the first five minutes of the second half.
Haskell gladly took advantage of Northern's inability to score, cutting the lead to 34-32 on Parker's second three-pointer of the game.
However, Northern finally answered with another Matthews jumper, a Brothers' putback and a Wilson score inside off a nice pass from Brothers to push the lead back to eight.
The Indians fought gamely, getting it as close as four points with four minutes remaining, but could get no closer, much to the disappointment of all of its new fans.
"Our transition defense was the key," Huse said. "We did a good job of getting back and getting in position on defense and not allowing them to push the ball and get quick shots. We were able to keep them at our tempo."
Besides his 15 points, Wilson corralled in 11 rebounds. Matthews scored 14 points and dished out a game-high seven assists. Gillespie came off the bench to score 10 points.
Yellowbird-Stevens led Haskell with 13 points, while Parker finished with 11 points and a team-high six rebounds to the delight of the large crowd.
Regardless of feeling like a visitor in his home gym, Huse was pleased with the turnout for a nonconference game.
"What a great crowd," he said. "It didn't matter who they were cheering for. They were very basketball knowledgeable and gave the game energy. I really appreciated the turnout. It's too bad that one team had to lose."
Northern obviously won't have the same packed house when it hosts Okanagan University out of Kelowna, British Columbia tonight at 7. But Huse still expects the same effort.
"We don't know much about them," he admitted. "Haskell was in the forefront of our mind and conference in the back. But we are still going to play the same type of basketball as always and use the game to better."
MSU-Northern 65, Haskell University 55
Haskell University (1-14)
Jazz Parker 4-8 0-0 11; Topah Spoonhunter 1-6 0-0 2; Aaron Hogner 2-4 0-1 4; Lati Hill 3-3 1-1 7; Brandon Yellowbird-Stevens 5-8 3-5 13; Jeremiah Rector 1-3 0-0 2; Jamison King 2-8 0-0 6; Lonnie Favel 2-4 0-1 5; Shawn Demarris 1-5 1-2 3; Justin Pendleton 1-3 0-0 2. Totals: 22-53 4-9 55.
Reid Stovall 2-3 0-0 4; Marcus Wilson 7-10 1-2 15; Jordan Matthews 5-13 3-4 14; Landen Grant 1-5 0-2 2; Leo Bullchild 0-1 1-3 1; Cory Brothers 3-9 2-4 8; Antonio Jordan 3-5 0-0 7; Cody Gillespie 4-6 2-2 10; Ed Lowe 0-1 0-0 0; Pathe Yatera 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 25-53 9-17 61.
Halftime: MSU-N 34, HU 25. Three-point goals: HU 7-20 (Parker 3-6, Hogner 0-2, Hill 1-1, Rector 0-1, King 2-5, Favel 1-3, Demarris 0-2); MSU-N 2-17 (Stovall 0-1, Matthews 1-6, Grant 0-2, Bullchild 0-1, Brothers 0-3, Jordan 1-2, Gillespie 0-2). Rebounds: HU 30 (Parker 6); MSU-N 35 (Wilson 11). Assists: HU 9 (Parker 2, Hill 2); MSU-N 15 (Matthews 7). Turnovers: HU 25; MSU-N 23. Team Fouls: HU 23; MSU-N 15. Fouled out: none.